The question changed during the formulation from

What is the correct 'British English' pronunciation of Van Gogh?


Is there such a thing as a 'correct' English pronunciation of a Dutch name -- specifically of Van Gogh?

Failing that, is there at least a commonly accepted convention? For personal usage I'm interested in 'British English' variants including Irish English, but extra padding concerning US variants would not go amiss.

Wikipedia gives the correct Dutch IPA pronunciation as [ˈvɪnsɛnt ˈʋɪləm vɑŋ ˈɣɔx] and even has an audio file of same.

The solution might be to use the correct Dutch pronunciation, but it doesn't sit naturally with me. This answer on the ELU site made me think there might not be a definitive answer.

Another consideration is that there is often no one established “correct” pronunciation for foreign names in English. Usually for famous or well-known people, some kind of conventional pronunciation is established over time, but what that pronunciation will be is not always predictable. Some people try to pronunce names as close to the original language as they can. This means that it would be difficult to figure out how to spell these names if it was based on how English speakers pronounce them

Google wasn't as helpful as I thought it would be. Several sites gave the correct Dutch pronunciation and noted that English native speakers (both sides of the Atlantic) pronounced it incorrectly. But then I found an ever so British perspective

Something that drives British people absolutely bonkers is hearing an American "mispronounce" the name of Dutch post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh. Pangs of rage fill up the collective consciousness as the nation retorts in one voice: "it's VAN-GOFF, not VAN-GO!"

Though not a big fan of the style of the piece, as an Irish English-speaker this is also the pronunciation I use. So can I assume in British and Irish English usage that Van Gogh rhymes with cough??

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    I suspect you're right. On a side note, there are many different ways the name can be pronounced in Dutch, as there are many different accents. In standard Dutch, it would be more like /xɔx/. In the south, where I believe he came from, it will be more like /ɣɔx/. A map of various Dutch dialects around the world, many of which are not even mutually comprehensible: external-preview.redd.it/… The number indicates the linguistic distance from standard Dutch. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Aug 17 '19 at 20:02
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    Let it drive you crazy, but I've never heard anything other than "van go" on this side of the pond. Occasionally it's pronounced with a slight throat-clearing "gh" sound at the end, but the sound is rarely emphasized. – Hot Licks Aug 17 '19 at 20:18
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    @HorLicks - That could mean either side. – nnnnnn Aug 17 '19 at 22:42
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    @JohnLawler: Have you really read the question? – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Aug 17 '19 at 22:43
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    To my ears the standard British pronunciation is more like Goch (to rhyme with loch) than Goff. – Kate Bunting Aug 18 '19 at 7:58

As in loch. English-born , as opposed to Scottish-born, people can learn to pronounce loch correctly with practice. As with any non native language speaker, sounds outside the native language have to be acquired with practice. Welsh presents the same problem for non native speakers.

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  • How does this answer the question? It’s a pretty unclear question, but it seems to relate to usage rather than learning Dutch. A really trick question is how do the Dutch pronounce Hieronymus Bosch? Not the way it’s pronounced in either England or Scotland. – David Jul 17 at 20:27
  • Fair comment. Most British people I know pronounce it as in Van Goch. Goff is based on English ‘cough’, although it might just as easily have been ‘bough’. Go is, I assume, from ‘though’. And same comment applies. I don’t speak Dutch, so can’t say about Bosch, other than admit I’ve always said Bosh! – Liz Thompson Jul 18 at 12:18
  • — I agree. I have never heard anything other than Goch rhymes with loch, in England or Scotland. I’m not sure how the Dutch pronounce it, and certainly wouldn’t change if it’s different from how I do. I looked down my nose at the yanks when I first heard van Go, but the smugness was wiped off my face when I was corrected in the Netherlands for saying Bosh instead of (wait for it) Boss. It appears there was a sound change in the North Germanic sphere, and although modern Dutch spelling reflects this, the spelling of surnames, especially historical figures has been retained. – David Jul 18 at 13:21
  • I shall endeavour to remember it’s Boss! Thanks David. – Liz Thompson Jul 19 at 14:58
  • — Add it to your store of useless information. I worked in The Netherlands for a couple of months which is why I know. I wouldn't dream of using standard British pronunciation at home though. I haven't checked out Van Gough, but the tricky thing in any case is the G sound. The Dutch for good day is "goede dag" which looks similar to the German (guten tag). Whereas the German is easy enough to approximate to, both g's in the Dutch are almost impossible. The first is something like a Y and the second a bit like the ch in loch. How they laughed at me! – David Jul 19 at 15:19

Pronunciation should be correct, and it should be understood by your peers. These can be opposing demands. Correct pronunciation is useless if nobody else knows what or who you are talking about. In the case of Dutch words, I would add that you should pronounce a word in such a way that saying it doesn't cause you damage.

Goch pronounced the same way that a Scottish person would pronounce Loch (Ness, for example) comes reasonably close to the correct way (although many Dutch people would disagree). It's definitely not like the gh in laugh or cough - but then lots of English people would have problems with the ch in Loch, so "van Gogh" with the same gh as in cough will be understood correctly by many.

If Americans say "Go" like the gh in "though", that's slightly worse than the English "Cough" in my opinion - no consonant is worse than the wrong one, and I bet they get the "O" wrong as well.

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  • Are you saying that the Dutch damage themselves when they speak? How does that work exactly? – tchrist Aug 18 '19 at 14:14
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    @tchrist The Dutch are trained from a very young age to produce certain sounds - hence they don't hurt themselves a lot when they do it. Asking foreigners to pronounce certain Dutch sounds is the linguistic equivalent of asking a normal grown-up to fold their legs behind their head; there are people that can do that without damaging themselves, but doesn't mean everybody should give it a go :) – oerkelens Aug 18 '19 at 14:52
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    @oerkelens it appears that with respect to R, Dutch children get a break because of where the TV studios are located. :) – tchrist Aug 18 '19 at 15:10

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